Fox River Grove train-school bus crash 25 years later: 'Just something we can't forget'
Sunday marks 25 years since the tragic day a train slammed into a school bus in Fox River Grove, and many in this tight-knit community still can't pass the railroad tracks at Northwest Highway and Algonquin Road without remembering the students who died there.
It's where a small group of loved ones gathers every year on this date to say a prayer for those they call the seven angels.
"Time has healed some wounds, but it's still difficult. Especially when we see each other and there's hugs going on," said Jim Kreher, who as deputy fire chief was the first to arrive at the crash scene shortly after 7:10 a.m. on Oct. 25, 1995. "We laugh and talk about life in general a little more, but it's still there. I can't imagine losing a kid like that."
Kreher, now the chief in the neighboring Barrington Countryside Fire Protection District, maintains a memorial garden at the site with the help of his wife. They often find flowers or mementos left at the foot of a stone carving that bears the names of the seven Cary-Grove High School students who never made it to school that day.
It's personal for Kreher and his brother Bob, the longtime Fox River Grove fire chief, who both grew up in town and never left.
"We knew a lot of these people before the accident," Jim Kreher said. "We know a lot of the parents. We see them throughout the year. Our community is still small and close."
The crash occurred when a substitute bus driver drove over the train tracks and stopped for a red light at Northwest Highway, but didn't realize the rear 3½ feet of the bus was hanging over the tracks. A Metra train going 60 mph slammed into the back of the bus, spinning the body off its chassis.
The seven students who died were Jeffrey Clark, 16; Stephanie Fulham, 15; Susanna Guzman, 18; Michael Hoffman, 14; Joe Kalte, 16; Shawn Robinson, 14; and Tiffany Schneider, 15.
All but four of the 35 students on the bus had injuries.
One student who survived was Jason Kedrok, a 15-year-old sophomore who was seated a couple of rows behind the right rear tire. The impact of the crash was in the rows just behind him.
Kedrok, now 40 and a firefighter/paramedic in Arlington Heights and part-time training officer in Fox River Grove, sometimes thinks of that day when he's talking with colleagues in a training class, or assisting the victim of a serious accident.
Because of the trauma he experienced, he's in a unique position to be able to help on an emotional level.
The husband and father of four said he doesn't take the simple moments of everyday life for granted.
"I try to pass it on to my family and to my kids to make dinner last 5 to 10 minutes longer, because that is precious," Kedrok said. "That is the stuff that can't be purchased. You can't buy an app for it. That time is not replaceable."
Bob Hanaford, an attorney who represented families of seven of the teenagers who were on the bus, said not a day goes by that he doesn't think about the crash. He still keeps in touch with his former clients, who've become friends.
Hanaford and other attorneys helped secure some $27 million in settlements that led to rail crossing safety changes. That included placing traffic lights before railroad tracks, longer warning times thanks to improved interconnects between oncoming trains and traffic signals, and more markings and signage.
"It's changed rail safety in the world," Hanaford said.
Like the memorial near the train tracks, there are other signs throughout the community that show people haven't forgotten.
There's the Friendship Circle at Cary-Grove High and a memorial outside the Fox River Grove library. Fox River Grove firefighters wear a patch with blue and white ribbons, and one of their ambulances has angel wings and a halo painted around the number "7."
On Saturday, the local firehouse hosted its annual blood drive in memory of the victims.
"We never forgot what happened to our community and our students," Jim Kreher said. "It's just something we can't forget about. It did change our community."